[Beads & Bead Makers: Gender, Material Culture & Meaning]

Article excerpt

This volume brings together 12 articles originally presented at a workshop held in 1995 at Queen Elizabeth House, under the auspices of the Cross Culture Centre for Research on Women at the University of Oxford. The contributions represent a wide variety of subjects, approaches, time periods and cultural areas. Topics range from the manufacture and trade of beads, to their different forms of consumption and their symbolic meanings, "with gender the overall theme" (p. vii). The authors come from an equally large number of disciplines: Literature, Archaeology, Design, Folklore, Anthropology, History and Women's Studies. Articles span a broad sweep of time from prehistory to the present and cover a wide array of geographical units: cities, regions, countries and even continents throughout the world.

Lidia Sciama provides an interesting overview of bead production, trade and consumption in the introductory essay. She draws attention to the major role of beads as a trade item in all parts of the world since prehistoric times. Glass blowing and bead manufacture have generally been considered a male occupation. Sciama points out that in Europe, although men were responsible for blowing and cutting glass canes to make beads, women would polish, finish and thread them and prepare them for shipment. In certain parts of West Africa, however, women are the principal bead makers. Trade in beads appears more gender specific: whether in Europe or Africa, men were usually responsible for their commerce. Beads have been used in most parts of the world, by both men and women, as a form of body adornment. Sciama explains this widespread use of beads as an efficient way of expressing beauty (the skin has always been considered the first canvas and art object), fertility (beads resemble ovaries, nipples and female genitals) and power (the magical properties of beads are used to acquire power and maintain health). She concludes that beads are of great significance at all levels of society and are "closely associated both with individual and group identity" (p. 17). Sciama's essay goes beyond a simple presentation of the articles in the book; it provides a good survey of recent bead research, including David Graeber's (1996) fascinating work on beads, money and regimes of value.

In Europe, Venice has always been at the centre of glass bead production which was generally assumed to be a male occupation. In her survey of the history of bead manufacturing from the Middle Ages to the present, Francesca Triviality pays special attention to the role of Venetian women in the industry. Like most European medieval guilds, that of bead makers was based on the principal of male heredity and craft skills were passed down as property from man to man. Female labour was used much more, however, than indicated in official records. Bead stringing was usually done by women and they were also involved in the distribution and sale of beads at the local level. Men kept responsibility for the more lucrative long distant trades.

The following three articles deal with beads in Africa. Margaret Carey provides an overview of African beadwork. Gender roles in the manufacture of beads vary according to the materials being used (metal beads are usually made by men whereas shell beads are made by women), the uses made of the objects (royal regalia is made by men; jewellery for females by women) and the groups involved. Beads are used as status markers, as a vehicle in social intercourse (courtship and weddings), as markers of rites of passage and as expressions of sociopolitical protest. Joanne Eicher's article focusses on the Kalabari Ijo of Nigeria. Here, for both men and women, beads are considered valuable objects and they are kept in containers under lock and key. At death, they are transferred to the closest relatives; the oldest woman in each lineage supervises these treasures which serve as expressions of family genealogy and identity. Ann O'Hear concentrates on the red stone beads called lantana made by the Yoruba in the city of Ilorin, Nigeria. …